George Carlin has a great routine about the nature of prayer. It can’t be done justice here, though it does arrive at the conclusion that God must have an awful lot of school exams to ensure students pass. We pray for a lot of things, if we do at all, and they’re often trivial. It’s certainly not trivial for Frederic (Henry Czerny). A former priest who has recently lost his daughter, Frederic is begging for punishment for leaving the faith at the start of Mark O’Brien’s The Righteous. Unlike most, he gets an answer. It’s just not quite the one he wanted.
Frederic’s answer comes in a young man, Aaron (O’Brien), who seemingly falls from the sky onto his back porch with a bum ankle. By the next day, Aaron has thoroughly ingratiated himself to Frederic’s wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) and very quickly starts assuming the role of their new adopted child.
Only Aaron did sort of fall from the sky. He came in answer to Frederic’s calls as either angel or demon, and he asks the ex-priest to kill him not just for his sins, but for all mankind’s. Probably the most frightening aspect of a God is that we may well have no idea how it operates or what it wants. The faithful can more easily dismiss this, claiming the devil’s trickery. Though The Righteous doesn’t so readily walk away. We know Aaron is something otherworldly, and that’s frightening enough. He’s clearly malicious, but why would God send evil? And would exterminating him really be the trade he claims? Is it really tit for tat? It’s in wrestling with these very questions where the film is the most entertaining.
It’s certainly not frightening, it’s horror in concept only. Though the concept is weighty enough to be more than a little unnerving, and thankfully it’s carried by a pair of strong performances. Czerny has been a dependable face for decades now, and it’s always welcome when he’s given more to do than the stuffy 90s bureaucrat roles he’s become known for from Clear and Present Danger and Mission: Impossible. O’Brien is equally capable.
All of this is presented in haunting, elegant black and white photography by Scott McClellan. Newfoundland has never looked more isolated, with a stark, desolate landscape. There’s also a real menace in the air, but mostly, it serves to emphasize the grief that runs throughout.
That’s not to say The Righteous doesn’t have airs of pretension that unnecessarily waft in. There are monologues and dream sequences and flashbacks that never feel entirely necessary. O’Brien’s origins are kept vague, so further backstory weakens an otherwise strong villain.
The scariest thing about The Righteous is the questions it’s asking. Fortunately, it leaves enough unanswered to at least remain interesting, but its ultimate conclusion is still a little preposterous. You never doubt its sincerity, and it’s certainly absorbing throughout its runtime, but it’d be wise to check its ambitions.
Kenny Hedges is Carbon-based.